region located in the southern highlands of modern Yemen. In antiquity Ḥimyar was the land of the Homeritae (Homerites), or Hameroi, of classical authors. The last and largest of the indigenous South Arabian kingdoms, it may have been founded in 115 BCE, the approximate starting point for the Ḥimyarite dating system. Otherwise, the earliest firmly datable references to Ḥimyar are found in classical sources. Aelius Gallus observed in 24 BCE, via Pliny (Nat. Hist. 6.32.161), that the Homeritae were the area's most numerous tribe. During the mid-first century CE, the author of the Periplus of the Erythrean Sea (23) mentioned Charibael, king of the Homerites and Sabaites, reigning at Ẓafar, who was in diplomatic contact with Rome. The kingdom lasted until shortly before the arrival of Islam. The language of the Ḥimyarites is known primarily from highly formalized monumental and dedicatory inscriptions that employed standard South Arabic based on the Sabaean dialect and used the consonantal South Arabic alphabet of twenty-nine characters.

By the beginning of the common era the older South Arabian kingdoms (Ma῾in, Saba'/Sheba, Qataban, and Ḥadhramaut) were in decline, and population and political power were shifting to the highlands. The highlands required new agricultural techniques that emphasized terracing and using local rainfall runoff. New kingdoms arose, among the earliest and foremost of which was Ḥimyar, with its capital at Ẓafar. [See Sheba; Qataban; Ḥadhramaut; Ẓafar.]

The next two and a half centuries were marked by a complex rivalry between the kings of Ḥimyar and other highland dynasties, a process only sketchily documented by surviving inscriptions. The Ḥimyarites at times managed to take and hold the ancient Sabaean capital of Marib, a principal prize in these contests, while on other occasions Ẓafar itself was overrun and occupied. By the early fourth century CE, the Ḥimyarites had largely defeated their highland rivals, the older eastern kingdoms were extinct, and Ḥimyarite control extended from Ḥadhramaut to Najran and included bedouin tribes from the adjacent deserts. [See Marib; Najran.]

Inscriptions and other historical sources for Ḥimyar are sparse for the fourth and fifth centuries, consisting primarily of a few dedicatory inscriptions mentioning building projects and occasional military campaigns. The reign of Abu-Karib Asad, a particularly long-lived king of the late fourth and early fifth centuries, may have marked the apogee of Ḥimyar. Later Arab traditions credit him with conquests as far afield as India and China. Late Ḥimyar is usually characterized as increasingly feudal, though there is little evidence for its social and governmental organization.

Behind-the-scenes serious sectarian rivalries must have been developing. South Arabia's indigenous religion had primarily been astral, with ῾Athtar, a male god associated with the planet Venus, worshipped under various epithets in the Ḥimyarite heartland. By the mid-fourth century, however, paganism was in decline. When the missionary ambassador Theophilus Indus, sent by the emperor Constantius II, arrived in about 350, he found Jews already present at the Ḥimyarite court. He reportedly converted the king to Christianity and built churches at Ẓafar and Aden. Dedicatory inscriptions referring to pagan deities disappeared shortly thereafter, to be replaced with monotheistic formulae that might be Christian, Jewish, or of an indigenous monotheism. The royal house ultimately converted to Judaism. [See Aden.]

Systematic excavation is needed to detail cultural developments in South Arabia during the Ḥimyarite period. Material from Ẓafar, Marib, al-Huqqa, San῾a, and objects in the National Museum in San῾a demonstrate that the region was in close contact with the cosmopolitan world of the Mediterranean basin and the Near East in the early centuries of the common era. The museum's collection displays a rich variety of fluted columns, acanthus capitals, and reliefs with vine scrolls, winged Victories, griffins, sphinxes, and various other motifs of the orientalized Hellenism of Late Antiquity. [See San῾a.]

By the early sixth century, Christian and Jewish rivalries had led to open conflict, marked by occasional Ethiopian intervention on behalf of Ḥimyarite Christians, perhaps at Byzantine instigation. The details are lurid though sketchy. The king, Yusuf Asar Yathar, the dhu nuwas (“lord of curls”) of later traditions, determined to purge his kingdom of Christians, massacring Christian communities at Ẓafar and Najran. These events brought on a massive Ethiopian invasion that resulted in the defeat and death of Yusuf and the installation of an Ethiopian viceroy named Abraha. [See Ethiopia.] The Ethiopians were later expelled with the aid of Sasanian Persia. When emissaries of the Prophet Muhammad came to South Arabia in 628, they found a Persian governor in San῾a. He adopted the new faith. Yemen, as the region would thereafter be known, was the first area outside the Hijaz to submit to Islam.

[See also Yemen.]

Bibliography

  • Beeston, A. F. L. “The Religions of Pre-Islamic Yemen.” In L'Arabie du Sud: Histoire et civilisation, vol. 1, Le peuple yéménite et ses racines, by Joseph Chelhod et al., pp. 259–269. Islam d'Hier et d'Aujourd'hui, vol. 21. Paris, 1984.
  • Casson, Lionel, ed. and trans. The “Periplus Maris Erythraei”: Text with Introduction, Translation, and Commentary. Princeton, 1989.
  • Corpus des inscriptions et antiquités sud-arabes, vol. 2, Bibliographie générale systematique. Louvain, 1977.
    Excellent bibliography for pre-Islamic South Arabia through 1975
    .
  • Müller, W. W. “Survey of the History of the Arabian Peninsula from the First Century A.D. to the Rise of Islam.” In Studies in the History of Arabia, vol. 2, Pre-Islamic Arabia, pp. 125–131. Riyadh, 1984.
  • Shahīd, Irfan. The Martyrs of Najrân: New Documents. Subsidia Hagiographica, no. 49. Brussels, 1971.
  • Wissmann, Hermann von. “Ḥimyar, Ancient History.” Le Muséon 77 (1964): 429–497.

Raymond D. Tindel